When it comes to photography, there are few experiences more hideously disappointing than loading your images onto your computer, only to discover that your fabulous pix, so beautifully composed and perfectly exposed, are not in focus.
Tack sharp is the standard of excellence, the holy grail of all photographers. It should be easy to achieve - anyone with a DSLR has auto focus, right? And yet it is all too easy to go wrong.
But before we get into more detail, let's just say right up front: yes, Photoshop and Lightroom do have sharpening features, yes there are things that can be done in post processing. But those solutions are not perfect. Better to get it right in the field.
Why is it such a problem, and what are the most common causes of soft focus? There are several.
One reason the problem occurs is because our LCDs lie to us. Amazing as it is that you can immediately view your image in a format that is three inches square or even larger, that simply is not large enough. Zooming in helps, but it won't tell you with absolute certainty whether your image meets the tack sharp standard. You will only know that once you've viewed your image on a full screen at a one-to-one ratio.
And so, it's easy to feel confident that the results are good, and perhaps forego some basic precautions. After all, if you're experienced and you know how to hold your camera solidly, you can certainly shoot handheld at 1/30th of a second or perhaps even a little slower, right? Maybe. Or maybe not so much.
So what does cause softness?
Camera shake is number one. The tiniest camera movements are immensely magnified when your images are blown up. The longer your lens, the greater the magnification of the problem. This is an issue that will never go away, but it's also one that is not difficult to correct. There are two solutions.
One is to simply increase your shutter speed. If you're shooting a full-frame camera handheld, at a minimum your shutter speed should equal your focal length. If you're shooting a cropped frame, make that one-and-a-half times.
Conditions won't let you shoot that fast? No problem - use a tripod. If fact, whenever in doubt - use a tripod. Make certain it is rock steady. Use a remote or cable release to ensure you don't cause camera motion when you press the shutter button. If you don't have one of those, simply set your camera for timed shutter release.
But maybe you have a different issue - were you correctly focused to begin with? If your camera offers you a multiple focus point option, you may want to try using just a single focus point. That way, you know for certain the key element of the photograph will definitely be in focus. If you're shooting wildlife or portraits, for example, that would be the eyes. In dark situations, it can be difficult to be certain your focus is precise. Carry a small flashlight to ensure you're focusing on the key element of your image.
Be sure your shutter speed is adequate. If you want to freeze a fast-moving object - say players in a football game, a flying bird or racing horse - you'll need at least a 1/1000th of a second exposure to get a perfectly focused freeze. Know your subject, and experiment with the best shutter speeds to be sure you get the image you want.
Don't forget to think carefully about your depth of field. If it's too narrow, key areas of your image may well be out of focus.
You may ask yourself, if my photo is just a little soft will anyone really notice? The answer is yes, they will.
All of which is not to say there's no place for blur in outstanding photographs. Of course there is - in panning shots, in mood shots, in shots meant to convey action, along with many other creative approaches.
The key is to have absolute control over the results of your photography. Tack sharp when it should be, and control over other effects so they'll emerge exactly as you envision.